News of Jeremy Hellickson’s elbow surgery brings both elation and despair to Rays fans. Despair because we’ve seen the first crack in what looked like the best rotation in baseball. Elation because that might have been a physical reason for Hellickson’s troubles in 2013. We can hope that once his elbow is fixed, Hellickson will bounce back.
There are many strong candidates that can fill Hellickson’s place in the rotation. Jake Odorizzi is probably the favorite, but the Rays will also want to take a close look at Enny Romero and Alex Colome. Perhaps Hellickson’s surgery will push the Rays to make a deal with another starter, with A.J. Burnett being a pie-in-the-sky candidate.
In any event, the Rays will start the season with five starters: David Price (barring a last-second trade), Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Hellickson’s replacement. In the bullpen, meanwhile, they will have Grant Balfour, Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, and Heath Bell in the bullpen for sure, Juan Carlos Oviedo assuming he is healthy, and Cesar Ramos, Brad Boxberger, and Josh Lueke as candidates for the remaining two spots. During the last few years, Joe Maddon generally carried twelve pitchers on the roster, consisting of five starters, a closer, 7th and 8th inning setup men, a long man, a situational lefty, and two others to fill in where needed. But is keeping twelve pitchers on the roster the best use of the Rays’ roster?
Different pitchers held the Rays twelfth spot last year. For a while, it was former closer Kyle Farnsworth, whose only memorable moment was convincing Miguel Cabrera he intended to hit him and striking him out instead. Farnsworth only pitched 27 innings in 2013 and was usually not effective. A better twelfth pitcher designation might be situational lefty Cesar Ramos, who pitched 67 innings, for a 2-2 record and a 4.14 ERA. Ramos essentially performed at a replacement level for most of the season, meaning he was just as effective (and no more) as your average Triple-A call-up. Perhaps that all one can hope for with your 12th pitcher, but teams that want to win the pennant can’t afford to throw away any spot on their rosters.
In order to keep Farnsworth and Ramos employed, Joe Maddon needed to take innings away from his 9th, 10th, and 11th best pitcher to give to his 12th best pitcher. You can argue that having that 12th pitcher keeps everyone else fresh, but there are times when the Rays have to give the ball to an inferior pitcher simply because he needs to get his work in. That doesn’t seem like the best use of the roster. A hitter in that 12th spot, if he can hit at all, will be worth a lot more to the Rays than a southpaw with an ERA 15 points above the league average.
The Rays bat nine each game including the designated hitter. 12 pitchers means the Rays only have four reserves. That doesn’t give them a lot of flexibility for in-game moves. One less pitcher means more innings for the Rays’ better relievers, and more opportunities for the offense. The Rays don’t need to sign additional players. They could give that spot to Jose Lobaton, for example. They paid him over $900,000 to avoid arbitration; maybe they could get some bang out of his bat at DH and as a third catcher if the right trade offer never comes. Or they could add another multi-position player like Wilson Betemit or Jayson Nix, and increase their offensive and defensive options.
Given his past performance, it’s unlikely that Joe Maddon will keep only 11 pitchers for most of the season. However, if he was open to it, he would have a chance improve the team’s offense and flexibility without sacrificing the overall quality of the staff.